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Mon Feb 15, 2016, 10:25 AM


Take and Read: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Editor's note: "Take and Read" is NCRonline's newest blog series. It will feature each week a contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

"Take and Read" will be published every Monday at http://ncronline.org/feature-series/take-and-read.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
by Malcolm X with Alex Haley
(Random House, 1965)

By M. Shawn CopelandFeb. 15, 2016
M. Shawn Copeland is a professor in the Andover Newton Theological School at Boston College and is the author of more than 80 articles, reviews, and book chapters.

On Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little and known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, N.Y. His autobiography, written in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Haley, was published shortly after his death but without, as sociologist and historian Manning Marable has noted in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, his final revisions and approval. Still, The Autobiography of Malcolm X holds a secure place in the canon of 20th century American literature and has become a staple in courses in African American studies. The Autobiography lays out in raw, mesmerizing detail one man's struggle for his own subjectivity or personhood and his advocacy for beneficial change in the social conditions of black Americans.

From the mid-1950s and through the decade of the 1960s, the civil rights movement held the attention of the American public. These were years of intense cultural and social ferment as the nation grappled with the ignominy of segregation and the ambiguities of integration. The urgent and eloquent appeals of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with freedom rides and sit-ins carried out by hundreds of black and white college students shamed the nation with an activism forged from nonviolent protest, a commitment to redemptive suffering, and neighborly love.

Still, there were other voices including that of Malcolm X. In July 1959, the New York-based television program "News Beat" broadcast a five-part series by Mike Wallace on the Nation of Islam (NOI), featuring Malcolm, among others. His scorching anti-white rhetoric gave weight to the charge that the NOI taught love's opposite -- hate. Malcolm's participation in the program established him as a powerful spokesperson for the Nation and its version of black separatism. He soon appeared on national television and radio talk shows, conducted interviews with major magazines, and lectured on college and university campuses. He also came to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By the middle of 1963, Malcolm had grown disenchanted with the Nation and the immoral behavior of its leader, Elijah Muhammad. In December of that year, Muhammad suspended him from NOI ministry: Malcolm had violated a direct order by commenting publicly on the assassination of President Kennedy. Within months, Malcolm repudiated the Nation, converted to Sunni Islam, formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and, made the pilgrimage to Mecca. He travelled and lectured widely in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Europe; he also changed his views on race relations and cautiously endorsed the aims of the civil rights movement. On the cusp of the bright achievement of his humanity, Malcolm X was gunned down before the age of 40.

I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1968 as a second year novice or newly professed ("neo-professed" sister of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice, more familiarly known as the Felician Sisters. The four years spent in religious formation in Livonia, Mich., have proved the most enduring influence of my life, rivaled only by my graduate school encounter at Boston College with Bernard Lonergan and his most brilliant student, Fred Lawrence.


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